Monday, August 11, 2014

Mass Destruction

I recently attended a reunion of my mother's family. Not everyone in the family was there, but it seemed at times as though everyone in the world was there. The Gradys are Irish Catholic, which means they are both prolific and prodigious. And well-lubricated; in addition to two Grady-reunion-themed t-shirts we each went home with a Grady-reunion-themed pint glass - an appropriate memento if ever there was one.

I had to leave early the day after the reunion for a cross-country road trip, so while I got to enjoy the fun of the reunion, I missed what might have been the most memorable part of the weekend. My uncle, the priest (now retired) offered to have the family over to his house for Sunday morning mass. Now, I'm not sure who all went - a few of my uncles, aunts and cousins have left the fold over the course of their adulthood - but my uncle the priest estimates about a ton and a half's worth of people showed up for the Eucharist. (That may be his subtle way of suggesting that some of us need to lose some weight, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.) I've heard of ministers comparing attendance numbers, but I've never heard of them calculating by tonnage. Anyway, at some point that morning the mass was interrupted by what my uncle describes as the "big bangs."

We have photos from the crawl space beneath the living room in my house. Two of the three bricks that, together with a cinder block, support the floor joists are cracked.
There's a joke in there somewhere. And if not a joke, there's at least a sermon illustration. I can't really think of one, but maybe you have ideas you can share in the comments.

I'm no great fan of church construction; I think a lot of money goes into it that could be better spent on other things. Moreover, I think often church architecture enhances the separation of the church from the world around it, and subtly trains congregants to assume a fortress mentality, as though the church is their only protection from the world, as though their first priority ought to be protection from the world. I rather like the idea of something so quintessentially Christian as liturgical worship being celebrated in a family room packed to the gills with rough-and-tumble guests. It's a dynamic tension that, apparently, can make a big impact. It's a potentially atomic mass.

Anyway, no one was hurt at the extra-dense mass in my uncle's family room, although apparently none of my family members saw anything wrong with sending my cousin into the crawl space of a house that could collapse at any moment. My uncle is looking into what would be involved in repairing or replacing the damaged bricks. In the meantime, I'll keep thinking about what jokes, and what applications, can be culled from this momentous mass. I welcome your help to that end.

Friday, August 01, 2014

On Making Like a Tree

It's just one of the many memorable phrases from the great film Back to the Future: "Make like a tree, and get out of here." Oh Biff. He means "Make like a tree and leave."

I suppose that's what trees do: they produce leaves; it's part of the natural order of the universe. But by bungling the phrase Biff draws our attention to what's more obvious about trees: they stay. Often -- barring any disruptive event (say, deforestation) -- they stay for centuries.

And yet Biff remains essentially correct: trees also "leave," by which I mean they generate leaves, which eventually fall off and mulch the ground, each tree's own little contribution to the circle of life. As fiercely protective as trees are of their roots, enabling them to out-stay virtually everything around them, they are also decidedly prodigal with their leaves.

This is meaningful for me these days, as my wife and I prepare to leave our house of thirteen years, my home city of twenty-two years and her home city for her whole life. We're moving from greater Chicagoland, where it often seems we know everyone, to Colorado Springs, where we know virtually no one. We're making like a tree and getting out of here.

But that's only part of the story, isn't it? Even when trees uproot -- when they're burned by fires, which occasionally happens in Colorado, or when they're blown over by storms, which occasionally happens in Illinois -- they are still participating in the ecosystem in which they were planted. When anything ends, it becomes the incubator of something new; it's the great economy of creation and the triumph of the God of the living over the tyranny of death.

TWEET THIS: When anything ends, it becomes the incubator of something new.

I recently read some thoughts on trees from Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police, in his memoir One Train Later:

"Guitars begin as trees, float down rivers, get hauled into lumberyards, are sawed into planks, and then are dried, cured, and left to age. They arrive in the player’s hand still with the memory of a tree, atoms and molecules reforming to become a guitar. A history begins; fate is determined; events take shape."
I like this. Before a guitar is a guitar, it's a tree. A tree gives up something true and beautiful about it, and through a careful, deliberate process it becomes something out of which truth and beauty can flow. Its treeness remains, but now its guitarness can take shape.

It's part of the calling of every human, I think, to make like a tree: to take root, and to bloom and blossom, to offer shade and support to the ecosystem we find ourselves in; but then also to leave, and in that leaving to make new and different contributions to the world around us. They may be less, they may be more, they may cost us much, but they are ours to make, and we do no good if we refuse to make them.

TWEET THIS: It's part of the calling of every human to take root, but then also to make new and different contributions.

So we're making like a tree, and we're getting out of here. And when we arrive in our new place, we hope to make like a tree, lay down roots, and give ourselves to something new. It's scary, and it's costing us a lot, but it's what's next for us.

Moving is like a death. It's worth mourning as such. But it's also a new beginning; indeed, the death itself contributes to the new thing being created. We're grieving our leaving, but we're eager to plant new roots and start our new life.

Image shamelessly lifted from Kurt Willems's Facebook page.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Finding Your Voice: Reflections from a Guitarist

Long before he was the guitarist for the Police, Andy Summers was a guitarist at large, first in London, eventually in the United States, touring with bands both known and unknown. One day, after an abrupt and curt dismissal from the Soft Machines that sent him straight into the arms of the Animals, Andy got an invitation to swing by a music studio in LA, where Jimi Hendrix had booked some time to record.

This wasn't Andy's first encounter with Jimi, but it was a more relaxed environment than their earlier encounters, and Andy and his mate passed the time doodling with guitars in a corner. Eventually Jimi came and joined them on bass. They jammed for a while, and then Jimi asked if he could take the guitar, so Andy switched to bass and they kept on jamming. Finally the moment had passed and they all knew it, so they nodded appreciation to one another, and Jimi returned to the recording booth, while Andy returned home.

Try to imagine that feeling, sitting alongside the master of your chosen instrument, the universally acknowledged exemplar of your chosen vocation. Try to imagine how you would conduct yourself with him, how you would process the experience afterward. What course would it set you on? What changes would you make to your life? What decisions would such an encounter demand of you?

For Andy Summers, this was a moment of truth:

That night when I finally lie down, I know I have just passed through a seminal moment in my life. Jimi is having a huge influence on guitarists everywhere: people are mimicking his style, and little Jimis are springing up everywhere. The Hendrix style is very seductive, and at this moment in the world of rock guitar, it’s hard to resist trying to get all his licks and aping his style. But I wrestle with it because from almost the first moment I began playing the guitar, the one precept that has consistently come at me, been hammered into my brain, held up as the sine qua non of playing music, is the idea that you must find your own voice, you must - in the words of countless musician interviews in the magazines I read as a teenager - "have something to say." Jimi has something to say, but somehow through a combination of natural stubbornness, in-born musical instincts, and the long embrace of the "own voice" idea, the thought of being a Hendrix clone is anathema to me.
TWEET THIS: Imagine sitting alongside the exemplar of your chosen vocation. What decisions would such an encounter demand of you?

Andy Summers writes this memoir in the present tense, an interesting quirk for most of the book, but in moments like this the memories crackle with energy. The fact is, so much of contemporary music, of any creative endeavor, actually, is mimicry. We emulate those we admire, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Earlier in One Train Later Andy wrote about the Eric Clapton fever that spread throughout the guitarist community in England, another occasion for him to resist the temptation to co-opt someone else's style. I'm impressed with Andy's capacity to honor those musicians whose innovations he rejects; he doesn't deny the greatness of Clapton or Hendrix or anyone else, he just declines to play their way.

There's a cost to this commitment. To continue to seek an elusive voice of your own is to make yourself less marketable; other, lesser artists will happily don the Jimi mask and take the gig you refuse to take. It hurts to not have a voice; you suffer for continuing to search for it. But it's out there, and with patience and vision, you'll find it.

I am in a position [as lead guitarist for the band The Animals] that many guitarists would covet, but inside I have a nagging feeling that it is temporary and that I have not yet found the environment in which I can be the most expressive. . . . Other guitarists I started out with — Clapton, Beck, Page, Albert Lee — are well on their way. Maybe I have been sticking to my own path too rigidly, maybe I should have taken a more obvious route like everyone else, or maybe my time hasn’t come yet. But like anyone, I need the setting in which it can take root. At the moment the partners I am seeking are both still at school in England: one at Millwall in the English west country, the other at St. Cuthbert's grammar school in Newcastle.
TWEET THIS: It hurts to not have a voice. But it's out there, and with patience and vision, you'll find it.

The partner Andy sought at Millwall in the English west country was drummer Stewart Copeland; the partner at St. Cuthbert's in Newcastle was bassist Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting. Together they would become the Police, who carved out a unique sound in the 1970s and 1980s by blending jazz, reggae and punk music with smart, literary song lyrics. They've sold over 75 million records and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and are included on numerous lists of the greatest artists of all time. Andy Summers eventually found his voice, and it sounded nothing like Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. I, for one, am glad he held out for it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Being the Change, Being Yourself

I've started my new job as a telecommuter; after a few weeks I'll shift to working onsite. I was always attracted to the notion of telecommuting - fewer disruptions, plus the acceptability of pajama pants as "business casual" - but my wife wisely warned that I wouldn't take to it. I'm too relational; I miss the group dynamic.

So I'm glad I'll soon be entering more fully into my new work environment, but I've been around long enough to recognize that the introduction of a new element to an ecosystem (which is a very vogue way of talking about being a new employee) introduces a fair bit of disequilibrium. And with the introduction of disequilibrium comes a crisis for the collective: who must change, the person or the system?

TWEET THIS: A new element in an ecosystem introduces a crisis for the collective: who must change, the person or the system?

This is the old evolutionary dilemma: adapt or die. Except that in this instance we're dealing with human personalities, and to change oneself simply to fit in to an existing culture can feel like the end of a significant part of oneself. In this instance, we contend with a more existential dilemma: adapt and die. Just a little bit.

Is that melodramatic? I suppose it is. I'm not going to die just because I can no longer play music through the speakers of my computer as I work from my office. Given the environment in which I'll be working, I'll have to do like one of my new coworkers and wear headphones. Then there's style - another challenge to my existing habits: as an editor, I have to conform my work to the house style guide of my new employer, which, unlike my previous employer, seems to think, that commas, should be used, like, everywhere.
These are survivable adaptations - microevolution, if you will, rather than macroevolution. But there are more inherent, more subterranean cultural markers of any defined network of people - any culture - that present more significant evolutionary quandaries to the new guys among us, and when we come upon them we have to decide how much, how often, and for how long we will adapt to suit. And similarly, we have to gauge how receptive our new environment is to change, and what and where the levers of change are.

(I'm sure my new boss has read this far and is starting to panic; I sound a bit like a Bolshevik or something. I'm not. I'm an editor. Although as with Bolsheviks, it's in the nature of editors to change what they're presented with.)

Anyway, to prepare myself for adapting to (and, where appropriate, adapting) my new environment, I loaded up on some new books. I picked up Change by Design by Tim Brown, a great read about extending the method of designers from the production of artifacts to all corners of an enterprise - to galvanize imagination and collaboration toward the whole health of an organization. Something like that. It was good. And then I shifted to a book by Debra E. Meyerson: Rocking the Boat: How to Effect Change Without Making Trouble.

(Happy, boss? I'm not "making trouble"; I'm just "effecting change." It's all good.)

I expected something very different from Rocking the Boat than I got. What I expected was practicality, utility - a method for stirring the pot without landing in the hot seat. I was looking for, I suppose, advice on how to win new friends and influence new people. And there are elements of that in this book, particularly in later chapters. But instead of reading this book and looking forward to my new job, I found myself looking back, through many years, at how I've managed to survive being what Meyerson calls a "positive deviant."

"Positive deviants" are those people who don't naturally or comfortably conform to an established environment, and yet they've committed themselves to that environment and seek its good. In the process, they make small strides toward making the environment more receptive to people like them, and other people who are, like them, unlike the dominant culture. I identified immediately with this characterization. It's hard to know why, since most of Meyerson's examples have to do with minority identities in majority settings - people of color, women, LGBT folks. As a straight white man I better fit the profile of the dominant than the deviant. But it turns out that once you've defined a norm, it's hard not to notice the ways in which you deviate from it. It might be more helpful to think rather of "positive deviance" than "positive deviants," since really anyone at really any time can feel like an outsider to the system they find themselves in. But telling a positive deviant that what they're feeling is normal actually does very little good.

Meyerson's other term for this type of actor in a system is "tempered radical," one that I greatly prefer. A "positive deviant" has a relatively passive challenge; she has only to come to terms with her deviancy and try to stay positive along the way. "Tempered radical" implies something more active: the challenge facing such a person is to pursue her radical agenda in tempered ways - to make the change she wants to see in the world, as Gandhi sort of put it, causing as few headaches as possible for the people affected by those changes. A "tempered radical" focuses externally, on effective change; a "positive deviant" focuses internally, on not losing sight of oneself. Plus, I'd rather be thought of as radical (or even tempered) than as deviant.

Nevertheless, both are good, accurate, helpful terms, and whichever one you identify best with, you're going to need some encouragement. "Most organizations," Meyerson writes, "implicitly reward people for maintaining, not disrupting, the status quo." There's a tyranny to equilibrium; to disturb it is to engender confusion and anxiety, and to invite a suppressive response. If you deviate from the norm - even if you are positive about it, even if your particular deviation offers positive benefit to the environment - there are forces in play that will push you back toward acceptable norms. Any proposed change to your environment, no matter how tempered, will seem radical to some. The tempered radical, the positive deviant, can be seen as oppositional and treated as such; they face the threat of formal punishment or insidious, even subconscious, marginalization.

People who stand out as different face ongoing pressures to prove their loyalty to the majority. One way people do so is to distance themselves from those who are similarly "different."
Yet another way the norm tyrannizes the deviant: the norm pits the deviants against one another. And the deviants play along, because simply by acknowledging their commonalities they establish a new norm, which establishes new deviances, which invites more marginalization. It's stunning how effective we all are at attacking one another's sense of self.

Whatever. It's hard out here being a deviant. Shocker. The question is, what are you going to do about it? And how will you, a tempered radical, pursue your radical agenda in appropriately tempered ways?

TWEET THIS: Any proposed change to your environment, no matter how tempered, will seem radical to some.

I do wish I'd read this book fifteen or twenty years ago, when I was first facing up to my deviancies, when I was first being radicalized. Not that it isn't helpful in my current season of life, and not that it won't be helpful in my new environment (and, frankly, not that I suffered all that much for being different), but I do think we first contend with these challenges to our identity early on in adulthood, in our earliest encounters with organized environments. John Lennon actually sees this pressure reaching all the way back to our infancy:

As soon as you're born
They make you feel small.
The ways we engage our environments with our uniquenesses, with our distinct visions, are cast relatively early and harden into fixed attitudes relatively quickly. Cynicism plagues the tempered radical when an environment resists change; it's increasingly hard for a deviant to stay positive (or recover positivity) when their deviancy is actively, formally discouraged. Indeed, when simply being yourself feels like a battle, when your vision for the future is seen by your host culture as aberrent, Meyerson advises that "it is important to know when to stop fighting and instead look elsewhere." But because so much of tempered radicalism is a matter of identity, because our positive deviancy sets so quickly and follows us forward in life, we also have to be patient, circumspect, resolute and resilient. Meyerson quotes Keith Hammonds to remind us, in a way that is simultaneously inspiring and discouraging, that "Tempered Radicals .. are irritants to their organizations in the way that pearls are irritants to oysters." She goes on:

The capacity to push people to confront the conflicts and adaptive challenges facing a system is one of the most crucial and difficult aspects of real leadership.
In this way, and really in countless other ways, tempered radicals and positive deviants are assets to any environment; the disruption to equilibrium they offer may occasionally be sloppy or produce unintended consequences - they are human, after all - but it unsettles environments that, as often as not, need to be unsettled.

I count ninety-five commas in this post. Happy, new norm?